Embarking on their first national tour in over two decades, Melbourne band Underground Lovers play Badlands Bar in Perth on Saturday, February 24 in support of their latest album, last year’s Staring At You Staring At Me. Humble, friendly and articulate, singer Vincent Giarrusso spoke to GORDON JONES about the coming tour, music, filmmaking and David Lynch.
Underground Lovers were a major fixture in the Australian music scene of the 1990s, at one point winning an ARIA and releasing a string of acclaimed albums that continually moved across genres from shoegazing to dream pop, krautrock and electronic music. Their second album Leaves Me Blind (released overseas by a 4AD records imprint in 1992) was named #54 in the 2010 book 100 Best Australian Albums by John O’Donnell, Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson, while 1994 classic Dream It Down was rated Australian Album of the Year by Triple J.
After an extended absence in the 2000s, the original lineup reformed in 2009 and have steadily regained momentum in the years since, with two more albums including last year’s Staring At You Staring At Me (recently long-listed for the 2017 Australian Music Prize), several songs from which will be familiar to regular listeners of Double J and RTRFM.
The new albums have gotten a lot of praise. How does it feel to be back? Do you think your artistic goals have changed?
Well it’s great to be playing music and such a privilege to play. Our artistic goals, I don’t know if they have changed, we just want to make really as good a record as we can within the parameters of what we do. With Staring At You Staring At Me we set ourselves the idea of having the first half of the album really pop oriented, with really clear and clean pop songs with male/female pop melodies, and in the second half it kind of disintegrated and became a bit looser, a bit more paranoid and anxious, and that became the album.
The working title of the album was “Melbournism” – were you trying to make a big statement about your home city?
When we started we weren’t trying to make a ‘big statement’ but we wanted to capture elements of it that we grew up with, basing the lyrics on locations in Melbourne, feelings that you get in those locations, but as we progressed we realised that you can’t capture everything about a place and and it would be arrogant and foolish to think that you could. So we dropped the Melbournism tag, but yeah we do try to capture that feeling of where we live and who we are, in Melbourne.
Your band was pretty celebrated in the early 90s, how do you feel about that whole experience now? Is there any sense of unfinished business?
Well the only thing I regret is that we didn’t take it seriously enough at the time, you know. We were kind of young people, kind of arrogant, we kind of took it for granted, but that’s just part of getting older as well. I mean, we played a lot and we put out a bunch of albums that we were really proud of, but it just felt natural to have a break and you know life takes over in the break. We had families and went off and pursued other projects, careers, jobs, all working in the creative industries, so when we came back together it just felt like that time was no time, like it was bang straight back into it and it was just the same as it ever was… oh that’s a Talking Heads song isn’t it? (laughs).
You cross a lot of genres in the music, do you think that made it harder for you in the 90s to fit into the Australian music scene?
Well I think being in the world today, you are bombarded with different genres and sounds and we want music that reflects that. I think that’s kind of the reason why we do it, we want to explore different genres in our sound. I think there is an Underground Lovers sound but we want to push it and bring in different things. We want to be open to the world rather than closed from it.
Did it make it harder to pigeonhole you?
Yeah sure, but we’re proud of that. I mean personally I hate box-tickers, there’s nothing more restrictive or reductive than that kind of mentality which is unfortunately a big part of the world we live in. I hate being ‘nailed’ or people working out stuff or feeling reassured. I love that energy of chaos and not knowing where it’s gonna go. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but let’s go on it together, it’s exciting.
You are touring with the original line up including Philippa Nihill, who was such a big part of the early sound, does it feel like you have come full circle? What should audiences expect?
It’s fantastic playing with the original line up, but we also have Emma (Bortignon) coming along as well on bass and on other instruments. Pretty much we structure the set – the first half is electronic, with some loops from the 90s and the second half is the full band which is more chaotic and crazy and hopefully uncontrollable but we never know what it is going to be like until we’re there. Coming to Perth is an awesome thing for us and we’re very excited about that.
You wrote and directed a movie (Mallboy) in the early 2000s that won a lot of praise, any plans to make another?
I’ve actually just finished my PhD in scriptwriting! It’s been examined and passed and hopefully will be published in the next 18 months and out of that I want to move in to making another film. I’m in pre-planning and hoping to get the ball rolling around September next year. I enjoyed making the first one but I know a lot more now and I am ready to make another one.
In the same style as Mallboy?
It’s a film about young people and social issues. The style of it is gonna be a bit chopped up, a bit more reflective of the way we get media these days, the bits and bobs. It’s a bit different to Mallboy which was influenced by Italian neo-realist cinema, which is what I lecture in at university.
Your music is packed with cultural references from philosophy, literature, cinema. How important is this to your work?
Yeah I mean, I get a kick out of hearing other music that incorporates a lot of references and things – I mean I love that, you know, I’ve always loved that. I mean I think the audience is extraordinarily smart and if they want to go with it they will go with it. I just think it’s a really cool thing. Although I do love a lot of dumb stuff as well, but that’s just one of our bags that we like that kind of stuff.
Who do you think is making great music and cinema now?
There is so much stuff out there but how do you get attention? I mean there is great cinema, great music coming out of Europe. I think this was an extraordinary year for television, I’m on the Twin Peaks team..
It started so well and became such an incoherent mess…
Yeah but how beautiful is that mess? I just really loved the boundaries that it pushed. There was a real sense of the auteur in there, there was a personal vision. It didn’t feel like something made by a committee, it didn’t give you all the answers. You came away perplexed, knowing that there there’s this sense of other in us and in the world, and that’s okay. It just became that Lynchian, director’s vision, going back to Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, you could see it not as a TV series but as a summation of his work as an artist which doesn’t happen that often in film and music.
You supported The Cure and New Order – how do you think that whole post punk/ indie subculture stands up now? Does it still have something to say to people?
Yeah I think elements of it crossed into the mainstream and lost potency but the fundamentals of that, just that kind of fierce independence, very idiosyncratic, if it was a film it would be auteur-driven, it just has that individualism and I think that is very potent for young people now. I mean the young people I teach, I sometimes show them an Orange Juice clip (Scottish post-punk band) and they think that’s awesome and I’m like “yeah, that’s my influence”. I think it’s a great time to be making stuff, making films and making music. The whole distribution model’s changing and you can get stuff out easier, you know, it’s great for independent music.
With the revival of interest in different, older genres, in music like shoegazing, the renewed focus on gender and race politics, do you see a broader change in the culture? Is that real or superficial?
I think there is something changing in the culture, we are seeing the after effects of the explosion of information and internet and all of that and voices that were once unheard are now out there and if you choose you can hear them. All this stuff with #metoo and gender and race stuff, you can access those voices and it’s a positive thing. I think there is a shift in the patriarchal system. I think all of that is gonna happen. It’s gonna get ugly but I think the end result will be really positive.